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LISTEN TO – The Reith Lectures – Hilary Mantel

Just sat in the car for ten minutes to the last moments of the forth of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 – I didn’t want to lose a word, while relocating! Don’t know how I’ve missed the previous three – clearly I’m very successfully sleep walking through life right now – but really looking forward to a catch up!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SUTTON-HIBBERT/REX (424360ae)

Now, I don’t always ‘get’ Hilary Mantel, but after a rough start with Wolf Hall (see HERE and HERE) but had a much happier time with its follow up ‘Bring up the Bodies’. However, she is always an unusual and spirited speaker and I very much enjoyed listening to how she viewed her world as an author (and NOT a historian!).

For your convenience, links to the 4 parts that have currently aired are below.

From the BBC website:

Over this series of five lectures, Dame Hilary discusses the role that history plays in our culture. How can we understand the past, she asks, and how can we convey its nature today? Above all, she believes, we must all try to respect the past amid all its strangeness and complexity.

This series is chaired by Sue Lawley. The producer is Jim Frank.

Part 1 – The Day Is for the Living

Art can bring the dead back to life, argues the best-selling novelist Hilary Mantel, starting with the story of her own great-grandmother. “We sense the dead have a vital force still,” she says. “They have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding.” She describes how and why she began to write fiction about the past, and how her view of her trade has evolved. We cannot hear or see the past, she says, but “we can listen and look”.

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 2 – The Iron Maiden

How do we construct our pictures of the past, including both truth and myth, asks best-selling author Hilary Mantel. Where do we get our evidence? She warns of two familiar errors: either romanticising thepast, or seeing it as a gory horror-show. It is tempting, but often condescending, to seek modern parallels for historical events. “Are we looking into the past, or looking into a mirror?” she asks. “Dead strangers…did not live and die so we could draw lessons from them.” Above all, she says, we must all try to respect the past amid all its strangeness and complexity.

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 3 – Silence Grips the Town

The story of how an obsessive relationship with history killed the young Polish writer Stanislawa Przybyszewska, told by best-selling author, Hilary Mantel. The brilliant Przybyszewska wrote gargantuan plays and novels about the French Revolution, in particular about the revolutionary leader Robespierre. She lived in self-willed poverty and isolation and died unknown in 1934. But her work, so painfully achieved, did survive her. Was her sacrifice worthwhile? “She embodied the past until her body ceased to be,” Dame Hilary says. “Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre.”

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 4 – Can These Bones Live?

Hilary Mantel analyses how historical fiction can make the past come to life. She says her task is to take history out of the archive and relocate it in a body. “It’s the novelist’s job: to put the reader in the moment, even if the moment is 500 years ago.” She takes apart the practical job of “resurrection”, and the process that gets historical fiction on to the page. “The historian will always wonder why you left certain things out, while the literary critic will wonder why you left them in,” she says. How then does she try and get the balance right?

Click here to have a listen on the BBC website 

Part 5 – Adaptation

Hilary Mantel on how fiction changes when adapted for stage or screen. Each medium, she says, draws a different potential from the original. She argues that fiction, if written well, doesn’t betray history, butenhances it. When fiction is turned into theatre, or into a film or TV, the same applies – as long as we understand that adaptation is not a secondary process or a set of grudging compromises, but an act of creation in itself. And this matters. “Without art, what have you to inform you about the past?” she asks. “What lies beyond is the unedited flicker of closed-circuit TV.”

This episode hasn’t yet aired.

Check out the trailer for the excellent BBC series Wolf Hall – based on the first of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy.


Man Booker Shortlist Book 05 – Bring up the Bodies – GUEST

Man Booker


I’m reading through all six of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels  – attempting to finish before the winner is announced, although given the size of the books that is looking unlikely at the moment! Here’s the fifth of my reviews, for Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.


By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry’s actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line.

When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as Henry falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king’s pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a ‘truth’ that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Bring up the Bodies is the follow-up to Mantel’s phenomenal Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Booker Prize. This has been on my wishlist since I first heard she was writing a follow-up, so I was delighted, if a little surprised, to see it on the longlist. I remember when the longlist was announced, thinking that given that this is a sequel to a previous winner, if must be something quite special to have been considered for this year’s award – but that surely they wouldn’t shortlist it. When it made the shortlist, I thought it must be not just special, but exceptional.
I wasn’t disappointed. 
In Bring up the Bodies, Mantel has once again created a vision of Tudor England that escapes the romanticism that so often plagues historical fiction set in this period. This is history at its most brutal, bloody and unforgiving. The scene is set right at the start, as we join Thomas Cromwell and the King on a hawk hunt:
Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one… All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying…”
Once again, the characterisation is spot on. One of the problems with historical fiction, particularly such a well-known period, is that we all know the ending, which can rob it of any suspense. Anyone who remembers the schoolchild rhyme about Henry VIII’s wives (“divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”) knows that things aren’t going to turn out well for Anne here! 
Mantel plays with this a bit – at one point, a character demands to know how many wives the King intends to have, in a lovely piece of dramatic irony – but also gets around it by drawing such vivid, believable characters that you still root for them and care what happens to them, even if it is a foregone conclusion. She gives us a King Henry who is at turns childish, masterful, romantic, callous, politically savvy and almost wilfully naive – exactly as you’d expect a man who was bred to power and has known nothing but having his every whim indulged to act. 
Anne Boleyn is calculating and manipulative, but at the same time cuts a surprisingly sympathetic figure: she’s a woman who has managed to achieve vast amounts in a time when women had almost no power, by using her (much as I loathe this phrase) “feminine wiles”. To see her reduced to nothing, all that she has worked for stripped away in a shockingly brief period of time largely because she is getting older, has failed to produce a son and the King has started noticing another, younger woman, is heartbreaking.
“Anne Boleyn is not thirty-four years old, an elegant woman, with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant. Once sinuous, she has become angular. She retains her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, fading in places.”
And then there’s Jane Seymour, “pale, silent Jane”, who has caught the King’s attention despite the lack of any apparent effort on her part, simply by being the opposite of Anne. I found her character really intriguing: although she doesn’t actually get that much “stage time”, so to speak, her presence overshadows the entire book. She is described as being timid, quiet, modest to a fault, innocent, chaste, and naive to the point of stupidity. Most of this is borne out by her actions in the text, but she has enough throwaway, surprisingly barbed comments throughout the book to imply to the reader that there is more to her than meets the eye:
“‘My belief is,’ Edward says, ‘ this modesty could pall. Look up at me, Jane. I want to see your expression.’
‘But what makes you think,’ Jane murmurs, ‘that I want to see yours?'”
I was left with the impression that, in her own way, she is just as calculating as Anne Boleyn. Both characters are stuck within the limited social roles available to women at the time, but have taken opposite approaches: while Anne uses her charms to flatter and seduce the men around her, ultimately making her way to the throne with this technique but bringing about her own destruction by it too; Jane presents herself as the unimpeachable virgin, and thus escapes Anne’s fate. The two are living embodiments of the virgin/whore dichotomy, and each in her own way is simply playing a part.
Finally, we have Thomas Cromwell, master manipulator. He appears more ruthless here than he did in Wolf Hall: in the previous book, he came across as a man doing what he needed to do in order to survive and get ahead, but ultimately a kind and sympathetic person. Here, he seems more motivated by revenge. It is made clear on a number of occasions that the gentlemen of the King’s court look down on him for his lack of social standing, and resent his influence with the King: one courtier snarls at him to “get back to your abacus…you are a common man of no status, and the king himself says so, you are not fit to talk to princes”
Cromwell shrugs this off at the time, and later consoles himself that 
“Chivalry’s day is over… The days of the moneylender have arrived…banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys”
However, he is clearly resentful of those of less ability than himself who have gained their position through birth and social status, particularly Anne Boleyn’s family. He is also still seeking revenge on those involved in the downfall of his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, as described in Wolf Hall. When he moves against the courtiers alleged to have committed adultery with Anne Boleyn, it is explicit that he is targeting those he has a grudge against: one man who is under as much suspicion as the others is not targeted, as he is a friend to Cromwell.
The writing, once again, is spectacular. Mantel has a real flair with language, hence I’ve included so many quotes in this review! I don’t normally put a lot of quotes in, but my copy of Bring up the Bodies is just bristling with sticky notes I put in to mark particularly beautiful sentences and paragraphs, so it would have felt a crime not to include some here. Here’s another one for you:
“Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on.”
Beautiful, right? The text is just full of little moments like that: pitch-perfect descriptions that sum up everything you need to know with nary a word wasted.
So, you may have guessed by now, I quite liked this book 😉 The question is though, could it win? I’d love it to, but realistically I don’t think it can. To award the Booker Prize to a writer who won it a mere three years ago would be politically difficult, so to award it to the same writer for a sequel to the book they previously won with would be near-impossible. I also think it would feel quite unfair on the others on the shortlist.
It’s impossible to read Bring up the Bodies without thinking of Wolf Hall. Mantel has, in effect, had the space of two books to build her characters and story, whereas the other shortlisted authors each only have one book to impress the judges with.
Although Bring up the Bodies would work as a standalone book, it really makes more sense if read alongside Wolf Hall.
So, regardless of my own feelings on the book, I’d be astonished if it won, and I actually don’t think it should. For the record, my money is still on Swimming Home.



Wolf Hall – finally finished

As regular readers to the blog will know, I’ve been alternatively loving and loathing Hilary Mantel’s epic tome ‘Wolf Hall’ for the last fortnight…and the rest.

Well, I’ve finished it.

What an all consuming story – covering one of the most fascinating periods of history. When I wasn’t hurling the book away from me in disgust (no, BookElf, I never actually physically threw your book!), I was gripped down to the tips of my toes.

The characters, settings and events were depicted with a near frightening eye for detail, and I absolutely loved, in particular, Mary Boylen – whom the author managed to bring to life, making her far more than the anaemic depictions that have become fashionable recently. Of all the women described, I found her to be the most contemporary, and her flirtation and ambition (or lack thereof) could translate perfectly to today.

As is not always the case with historical novels, the balance between the ‘famous’ people and those lesser known secondary characters is practically perfect here. Naturally, we see Anne, and the Queen, and the King up close and personal, but the action is driven by lesser men. The manipulators and instigators here are the key players – those whose names are known to history, but whose deeds are somewhat more murky. This change of focus brings additional layers to an already complex book.

The pacing was also a thing that inspired fear and wonder, with so many people and events happening side by side, though the book is told in a very linear format. Cromwell is, as it were, ‘our man’, and the tale is told through his eyes, with very few deviations. Even when he learns something from another character, it is almost always revealed to us in the format of a conversation.

Also hugely enjoyable were the slight nods to the reading audience. Though Jane Seymore is barely mentioned and features only briefly, her mere presence instantly highlights to the expectant reader that almost all of these important people will end up dead by the end of that decade, however beloved of King Henry they might once have been. The realisation of which tickled my morbid sense of humour in a gross and thoroughly thrilling way.

With regards to the story, to the subject matter, I can have no complaints – intrigue, nobility, underhand dealings, and an on going feud with ‘those’ Europeans – who could want for more? However, in the structure and writing, I was somewhat less satisfied.
I’m not going to repeat my earlier criticisms about the lack of clarity, occasional need to create unique identifiers, and an unashamed over-reliance on pronouns – without any appropriate context to ground them; though I believe that these remain relevant throughout the book. Now that I’ve finished, I think that using pronouns as the near sole descriptor for Cromwell was indeed a form of literary affectation, which in my case did not work and took considerably from my enjoyment of the book.

The greatest success of this book is that I want to read more, I will definitely be working my way through the sequel, desperate for more from these characters. Where the writing flowed for me, it carried me away, and I will look out for the author in future.

However, as I said before, I would be very slow to recommend this to friends who did not have an avid interest in the time period, or in literature that is determined to be considered literary. While this is a lean book with regards to an avoidance of flowery descriptors, despite its size; it does suffer from the same self importance Cromwell was so often accused, most particularly where the persistence of an affectation is allowed over the substance of the book – surely a move unworthy of an author of this calibre.

So, I guess I’m suggesting that you give it a go, but feel free to throw in the towel if you find the present historic style of writing to be grating, or you can’t figure out who is who, and treat yourselves to the Shardlake series instead. It’s a totally different kettle of fish, but for me, fair more pleasant fishing grounds


Book Rating: 6/10 (Would’ve been higher if based on story alone)
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